Why public service agencies must balance safety with effective service provision  

The global COVID-19 pandemic has caused public service organizations around the world to transition quickly to remote working and digital services. It’s becoming clear that this is not just a short-term fix. Organisations will need to continue to transform their working arrangements and service provision in the long-term.   

Doing this will require public service agencies to strike a delicate balance between safety on the one hand, and productivity and effective service provision on the other. There are contradictory forces at play here. Leaders fear the risks to productivity and data privacy that continued remote working might pose, while employees are concerned about the risks of returning to work.  

There’s no clear cut, ready-made model for striking this balance. Different services will require a different approach. While all public service providers will need to think carefully about how they can minimize face-to-face contact, for some services this isn’t always possible. Providing equitable services relies on a mixture of digital and physical channels.  

Four things to consider  

That being said, when it comes to the challenges of reimagining public sector services, there are four broad areas of consideration that every organisation will need to address: building digital “contact-light” services; empowering a distributed workforce; unleashing human and machine collaboration and becoming an eco-system orchestrator. Each is connected to every other, and all are grounded in a new approach to data, analytics and the necessary enabling technologies. None of these areas are new to public service providers. It’s just that now, there’s an imperative to address them. Take human and machine collaboration. The need to combine human talent with the possibilities offered by machines to make public services more efficient is hardly new. But the pandemic has accelerated the importance of human and machine teaming  for agencies in ways that we couldn’t have imagined even a year ago. It’s an urgent challenge that Accenture has been helping agencies address with virtual contact centers. These use bots for frontline enquires, with human experts available from remote locations to answer the more complex cases that are automatically escalated to them.    

With worries over productivity due to remote working, intelligent automation and AI can also help human workers to perform routine tasks faster, to make better decisions and to do more meaningful, mission-focused work. Equally, with face-to-face interactions reduced, technology such as AI-powered chatbots can provide the first line of contact for queries from the public. This will ensure that face-to-face contact is reserved for those occasions where it is strictly necessary. One example of this in action? Changi Airport’s Digital Factory ,known as DIVA — for digital, innovation, ventures and analytics , it uses intelligent virtual agents to handle travelers’ enquiries before, during and after their trips. This provides a visually engaging digital interaction that provides travellers with the information they need, on-demand, without the need for human interaction.    

For each of these areas that public service organisations need to consider, there are a organisational and talent-based implications that will have to be addressed. For a start, the workforce will need new skills. Particularly urgent is training workers to be more data literate and to be comfortable training and working with AI.    

To facilitate this, organisational structures and cultures will need to adapt. The public service providers of the future will need to switch to a product-based service delivery model that combines front and back office functions. Functional silos will need to be eliminated to support distributed working and to ensure seamless data flow among departments.   

Change doesn’t just happen on its own. Cultural changes, driven by a new, empowered and human-centered leadership, will need to accompany any alteration to an organization’s structure. This means embracing a customer-centred view of services, cultivating trust in machines and fostering networked alliances across agencies, as opposed to silos within organisationsTo that end, we have recently helped one national government create a new data infrastructure that connects multiple agencies together in an ecosystem, sharing the data that they need to solve challenges collaboratively that impact across their different areas of responsibility.   

There is a lot of work to be done for public service organisations to continue transforming their services. However, not all of this needs to be done immediately, or at the same time. What’s required is a blueprint for phased and measured change.   

For a more in-depth analysis of what this change might look like and a more detailed analysis of how public service agencies can start their journey to the new world of work, take a look at our point of view here. 

Himanshu Tambe

Talent, Organisation & Human Potential Lead – Southeast Asia

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